“Perpendicular to the Sun”, by Valentine Cuny-Le Callet: avoiding imprisonment

First graphic novel by Valentine Cuny-Le Callet, excellent Perpendicular to the Sun just won the BD Fnac France Inter prize.

Valentine Cuny-Le Callet was first marked by a photograph she discovered as a child – that of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, taken secretly by Tom Howard in 1928.

A few years later, in 2015, taking advantage of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, Marine Le Pen asserted: “The penal system cannot survive without the death penalty. » The death penalty, abolished since 1981, intervened again in the public debate, while 52% of the French declared themselves in favor of its restoration.

Escape by mail

At the age of 19, Valentine Cuny-Le Callet, through ACAT-France (Action by Christians for the abolition of torture and the death penalty), began a letter to a prisoner sentenced to death in Florida, in the USA. This is how he met Renaldo McGirth, a young black American convicted of murder; meeting where he assigned a book in 2020, The World in five square meters (Stock).

But, after three years of correspondence, Valentine and Renaldo began the common project of telling the story of their correspondence and friendship. “in a story with four hands, mixing [leurs] texts and [leurs] drawings ».

Perpendicular to the Sun thus combining the story of Renaldo’s story, of a budding friendship, but also of the preparation of this ambitious project. The author reflects on the difficulties he encounters in doing so – from the censorship applied by the prison, which complicates their exchange, to questions about the method to be used.

“But how to represent Renaldo’s memories, dreams, and hauntings? How to create an image that carries its voice, without betraying it and without trying to take its place? »

Valentine Cuny-Le Callet

Perpendicular to the Sun

The artist alternates between pencil and woodcut, and often chooses to stylize his representations, to go through the symbolic. Distilled between its dark pages, some singular and very colorful images of Renaldo – those that rarely reach Valentine.

Of course, the brutality of the American justice and prison system invites every chapter, as Renaldo patiently tries to prove his innocence and rebuild his life from his five square meter cell, of which he had only two left. or three times a week to go to a paved yard.

In the middle of the prison, the question of race

To understand the context in which this new friendship suddenly plunged into him, the author returns to the racial history of the United States – from the abolition of slavery to segregation, including lynchings. This is how she, for example, follows in the footsteps of journalist and feminist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells.

And this story continues, on Perpendicular to the Sun, to prove its relevance; Valentine realized this when he noticed that, in front of the penal court that sentenced Renaldo to death, in Ocala, stood a statue to the glory of the Confederate States, defenders of slavery during the Civil War.

But his first visit to Renaldo – and the endless procedure it entails – will also be an opportunity for him to experience the fascination with American race for the first time.

“Dear Valentine,
You fill out a visit form, and you explain to me that you don’t know how to fill in the dotted lines in front of the word “Race”. This is the first time you have indicated this “information” in a document. Welcome to America. »

Renaldo McGirth

Perpendicular to the Sun

To build together Perpendicular to the Sunthe friends never stop fighting the strict rules of the prison and the censorship of “anything that doesn’t fit their way of looking at things, especially when it comes to black culture or cultures that don’t fully conform to the American ideal”. Because the prison administration tirelessly checks most of the drawings they exchange, making them qualified “dangerous” ; while Valentine gradually understood that“The danger is in any archive that evokes the history of racism in the United States”.

This is why he is forced to send Renaldo all the plates of his graphic novel, systematically removing the elements that risk censorship and that he describes to him. Most of his drawings never made it to Valentine – hence their rarity in the book.

Perpendicular to the Sunby Valentine Cuny-Le Callet and renaldo McGirth.©Delcourt/Encraces.

While Renaldo confessed to Valentine, at the beginning of their letter, that he “like[t] look at the world [s]your eyes, ever since [s]have an eye on [lui] is limited by the cell space where [il] is found”, Perpendicular to the Sun thereby providing a valuable opportunity to immerse oneself in the oppressive and narrow world of a condemned man.

Backed by the author’s research and his conviction that no one should, under any circumstances, be sentenced to death, this graphic novel of extraordinary intensity also informs a particularly effective and enlightening way in the American context.

Perpendicular to the Sun, by Valentine Cuny-Le Callet, Delcourt/Encras, 436 p., €34.95. In bookstores from August 31, 2022.

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